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Self-Defense Classes Empowering for Those With Vision Loss

Coastal Self Defense Academy offers free classes for at-risk participants

Jonny Caldwell demonstrates an elbow strike.
Jonny Caldwell demonstrates an elbow strike. (Glenn Avolio)

You’re walking alone at night in a familiar part of town, when fog begins to blow in. At first, you hardly notice but the fog persists, becomes more dense and wraps around you.

The street lights are growing dimmer, only dull orange globes floating somewhere in the distance, as the fog thickens they seem to flicker and are gone.

Now your sight is useless, even objects just a few feet away are unrecognizable. Even holding your hand to your face, you can only see it as the faintest of shadows. You are blind.

You continue to walk and you hear footsteps. The steps seem to be pacing you, following at a steady distance. You turn a corner; the footsteps turn, too. They approach and you can feel the sinister intent. What do you do?

This scenario is a representation of a blind or sight-impaired person being followed by someone who intends to harm them. The stalker thinks he/she is approaching a physically challenged, defenseless person.

The stalker imagines himself grabbing the victim from behind and robbing the person, beating him or her, or worse.

But as the stalker gets closer, the intended victim wheels around, hands up as if she can see the attacker. She shouts, loudly and firmly, “Stop!”

The sound is so unexpected, so loud and so commanding that the stalker freezes. The target shouts again, “Who are you? Stop!”

Unwanted attention is being drawn to the stalker. He thinks maybe someone will see; maybe this won’t be as easy as he thought. 

The target looks like she will put up a fight, and worse, it looks like she might know what she is doing.

This could be more dangerous than the stalker expected, even though he believes he might prevail, it isn’t worth the risk. He turns and runs.

While the above story is fictional, attacks upon the elderly, those with physical or mental challenges, and other at-risk individuals are all too real, according to Coastal Self Defense Academy.

Jonny Caldwell started going blind on his 27th birthday. He lost his sight completely within three months. Diagnosed with Leber Hereditary Optic Neuropathy (dead eye syndrome), he was caught totally off-guard by the loss of sight.

Unbeknownst to him at the time, there was a history of this disease in his family, but no one had it as dramatically as Caldwell.

At that time Caldwell was a cook, a career that ended almost immediately as the disease progressed.

In 1998, a year after losing his sight, Caldwell went to the Braille Institute, Santa Barbara, a nonprofit with a mission to offer a range of free programs, classes and services aimed at empowering those with vision loss to live more enriching lives.

When Caldwell's wife, who he had met at the Braille Institute, passed away from cancer, he was heartbroken. He stopped going to the Braille Institute while he mourned her.

When he heard the Braille Institute was offering a self-defense program, Caldwell was intrigued. He wondered what a self-defense class for the blind would be like?

He enrolled in the classes with some trepidation. That’s where he met instructor Teri Coffee McDuffie and the team from the Coastal Self Defense Academy, a 501(c)(3), for the first time.

Caldwell said he was anxious in the first self-defense class, not knowing what to expect and thinking it would be just about the strikes and kicks.

He said he was startled by the loud, commanding voice McDuffie projected to tell someone to stop and declare the intention to BE and FEEL safe.

He asked how tall the instructor was and was told she was only 5 feet, 1 inch tall, a fact that shocked and impressed him.  

Other things Caldwell said that would not have come naturally to him were: putting both hands up, palms out, to set a spatial boundary; and centering or grounding his body to help with balance and stability, which is a challenge for the sight-impaired.

Caldwell said he believes the self-defense program provides him with a greater awareness of his environments and his personal security. He said he “feels more positive and experiences more confidence and peace of mind.”

It has also led him to be more involved in his own health and well-being in his life outside of the classes.

While he considers himself an introvert, Caldwell said he thinks the self-defense classes have helped him come out of his shell and be open to social interaction, and that his connections to others are stronger.

Though he still can't see those around him who may target him for violence or criminal acts, Caldwell said he has gained the ability to sense people and their intentions, not with his eyes but with his instincts and increased awareness.

Caldwell’s takeaway from the Self Defense Empowerment program, is a more confidence to move about independently and expand his outside activities, such as walking to shops, doing errands, or visiting friends without feeling vulnerable or targeted.

He said he also feels he has greater balance and self-control, allowing him to move away from potential danger, or use his new-found power, if necessary.

Coastal Self Defense Academy (CSDA), a nonprofit, was founded by McDuffie to provide self-defense strategies to at-risk populations in our community at no cost to the participants.

“We focus on teaching mental and physical skills and proactive strategies that enhance self-esteem through self-reliance,” McDuffie said.

Over 31 years, McDuffie has been teaching and empowering women, teens, children and families through her self-defense programs. She is a 7th-degree Black Belt (master instructor) in the Korean Martial Art of Soo Bahk Do Moo Duk Kwan.

She is one of only five women to hold that high rank and has been a practitioner for 34 years.

With her martial arts background and other life experiences, she said she can tap into her abilities to maximize power, while projecting confidence with a “peaceful warrior” presence.

Nate Streeper, a librarian at The Braille Institute, said, “What CSDA has done for our students goes beyond helping them keep their wallets safe.

"It has provided them with a level of confidence, a zest for physical fitness, and an outlet for both physical and emotional release that so rarely comes their way; and for this we are grateful.”

—  Glenn Avolio for Coastal Self Defense.


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